Living through history in the making, as we have been doing for the last eight days, is a heady sensation. The experience is so intense, the impression of normal life being suspended so electrifying, that the dominant image of the week has been of individuals struggling with overwhelming emotions. The British people, by common consent, have been caught up in a spontaneous demonstration of grief for a much-loved public figure.

The Scottish Football Association came in for sustained abuse for its initial refusal to call off a World Cup qualifying match against Belarus, its critics suggesting it had failed to recognise the sombre national mood. But what is the national mood? What we know about tumultuous events like those taking place this week is that, from the calmer perspective of history, they rarely turn out to mean what they appear to represent at the time.

I do not doubt the sincerity of the people who have talked about their feelings for the Princess or laid flowers outside Kensington Place. What I would like to suggest, however, is that there is no simple explanation for this outpouring - that it is actually a maelstrom of emotion whose chief characteristic, far from being a strong single current, is a series of dreadful confusions. The most striking of these, unsurprisingly since it was a feature of the Princess's adult life, is the lack of any clear boundary between what is public and what is private.

Media intrusion into the Princess's life and death has been roundly condemned, sometimes by the very same people who took it on themselves a couple of days later to decree what style of mourning should be adopted by the Royal Family. I am, as readers of this column are aware, a lifelong republican but the spectacle of newspaper editors and members of the public demanding that Diana's relatives-by-marriage emerge from Balmoral and show us their grief struck me as wholly distasteful.

It is true that the Royal Family's style is out of tune with the zeitgeist, aspects of which were more accurately represented by Diana's reliance on new-age therapists and psychics, but this is hardly the week to demand from them a public conversion.

It seems likely that the Princess's own ambivalent relationship with the media will one day come to be recognised as shaping the course of events while the Queen, whose private feelings about her former daughter- in-law must be even more turbulent than those of the man or woman in the street, can hardly be blamed for doing most of her mourning away from the public gaze.

WHAT has happened, I suspect, is that the people (especially the ones who write to newspapers) and the tabloids have suddenly discovered that the royals can be pushed around, for the moment at least, and have been making the most of it. I don't think this is synonymous with republican sentiment, more an expression of a shift in power - and there is something quite ugly about the motives behind it. This brings me to another unattractive element of the supposed national mood, which is a near-hysterical search for scapegoats.

It is as if grief, which is universally recognised as a noble emotion, legitimises the uncontrolled release of sentiments which would in a less fevered atmosphere be regarded as intemperate or downright cruel. After I was woken by a phone call from a friend last Sunday morning, I listened to the radio news in a state of shock - the manner of the Princess's death was profoundly distressing - and with growing horror.

EVER since my father's death, I have been aware that one of the responses to such an event is an anger which, if it is not held in check, distributes itself against random targets. On Sunday, long before a clear account of the crash emerged, people were queuing up to vent their rage in a process which gained its own hysterical momentum as the week went on. First it was the paparazzi who were blamed for the Princess's death, then the charge was widened to include the press generally, after which the spotlight moved to the driver of the car - a man whose death was of so little significance that we discovered his name, Henri Paul, only at the moment he stood accused of causing the tragedy by drunken driving.

Two irreconcilable portraits of Mr Paul emerged, depending on whether you read the tabloid press which abused him as a habitual drunk or the broadsheets which found witnesses to his modest habits and sobriety. What this points to is the folly of rushing to make judgements in a highly charged atmosphere, and a failure of compassion all the more ironic because it is the virtue most often singled out in eulogies of the Princess.

It may make people feel better to sanctify Princess Diana and demonise anyone who can be held responsible, in any degree, for her death. There is no doubt that millions who never met her felt an intimate connection with her, and a very personal sense of loss. But there is a powerful element of illusion here. Women felt connected to Princess Diana because she revealed so many details about her unhappy marriage but that is different from actually knowing the real person behind the image.

It was that image, as I wrote in the first chapter of a book which happened, by a ghastly coincidence, to be published this week, that made life so very difficult for her. We had become used to perceiving Princes Diana as a victim who had struggled to overcome the disappointment of her marriage and an eating disorder - a script which did not leave much room for manoeuvre, especially at a moment when her private life seemed to be taking a new direction. I did not anticipate her death, so young and in such tragic circumstances, but I recognised the disjunction between the public image and the private woman, and the danger that one would stifle the other.

Now she is dead, and an unreliable hagiography is being created before our eyes, it is all the more vital to recognise that disjunction. That is why some of us sympathise with Diana's family without feeling drawn into a carnival of grief whose manifestations were apparent as early as Tuesday morning, when a placard appeared on a lamp-post in central London. "If Jesus was God's only son," it demanded, "then who is Diana?" This is evidence not of a nation united in grief but of one tending towards madness.